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Originally published April 5, 2011 at 9:42 PM | Page modified April 5, 2011 at 9:45 PM

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Veterans key to Huskies' coverage units

Washington hopes to continue its improved special teams play of late last season by keeping experienced players on the coverage units.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Washington Huskies appeared to find the answer to their kickoff and punt coverage woes late in the 2010 season — one that was right in front of them all along.

After experimenting earlier in the season with alignments that featured younger players, the Huskies went back to using many defensive starters (especially linebackers and defensive backs) on kickoff and punt-coverage teams.

Statistically, the payoff was pretty drastic the last four games. After allowing 27.5 yards per kickoff return through nine games, UW gave up just 19.3 in the last four.

And after giving up 346 yards on 27 punt returns in the first nine games, UW allowed 18 yards on nine returns in the last four. Not so coincidentally, UW won all four games, turning a 3-6 start into a 7-6 turnaround season.

While the Huskies hope the last two recruiting classes have begun to replenish their depth and give them more young athletes capable of handling special-teams duties, they enter the 2011 season still expecting to use many regulars.

"Last year, we put our best guys on special teams and that's a thing that Sark (UW coach Steve Sarkisian) is supporting this season, to get the best guys on the football field to help us on special teams," said UW special-teams coach Johnny Nansen.

Nansen says the Huskies have a specific formula.

"Our challenge (to players) is that if you are a starter on offense or defense you should be a starter on special teams, at least two of them, to give us a chance. And then some of the young guys (can) step up and play," Nansen said.

Despite the late-season turnaround, UW still finished near the bottom of the Pac-10, ranking seventh in punt-return coverage and ninth in kickoff returns.

The coverage units hit bottom in a 53-16 loss at Oregon on Nov. 6 when the Ducks used three long returns to set up scores, compiling 301 yards on nine kickoff or punt returns compared to 162 yards for UW on seven kickoff returns (and none on punt returns).

After that game, the Huskies committed to using as many regulars as consistently possible on as many coverage units as possible.

It was also after that game that then-senior safety Nate Williams and other defensive starters let coaches know in a meeting that they would accept additional responsibilities on special teams, if needed.

Washington also added a few extra tackling sessions during practice after the Oregon game, aimed in part at the kind of open-field tackling generally required on special teams.

"I think we got better because of the way we practiced," said senior linebacker Cort Dennison, likely to again fill a few roles on special teams in 2011. "We put a huge emphasis on special teams at the end of the year. We were out here 5-10 more minutes every practice session working on it, and I think the main thing that helped us was tackling. We were doing a lot of tackling things, and I think that translated to the games and we did a much better job those last three games of tackling on special teams."

By the end of the season, Nansen said, the lead set by some of the regulars had begun to sink in with younger players.

He recalls the opening kickoff in the Holiday Bowl, when freshman Princeton Fuimaono laid a hard hit on Nebraska's Niles Paul after just an 18-yard return, which seemed to set a tone for the upset victory to come.

"No doubt, it kind of rubs off on the young guys when you have (linebacker) Mason (Foster) and Cort and Williams in there," he said. "They did a good job and that carried on. The last three games they were outstanding on all of our coverage teams."

Notes

• The Huskies put on full pads Tuesday for the first time this spring. High winds forced the team to move from Husky Stadium into the Dempsey Indoor midway through practice. Sarkisian said he moved inside to get passing drills done adequately.

• Freshman TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins left late in practice with a quadriceps pull. Sarkisian said it didn't appear serious and that Seferian-Jenkins could be back by Thursday or Saturday.

• OL Ben Riva and Colin Porter sat out with the flu.

• Former QB Jake Locker and former Seahawks RB Shaun Alexander attended practice. Alexander spoke briefly to the running backs afterward.

Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or bcondotta@seattletimes.com

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